The framework agreement reached between the United States and Russia regarding the destruction of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical arsenal is good news. Within a week, the Syrian regime will have to provide a list of its chemical weapons and their exact location. And by late November the facilities where these weapons are produced will have to be destroyed. All of this will take place under strict supervision by United Nations inspectors, who will have unfettered access to all facilities where these weapons are produced or stored.
If the threat of use of force was meant to dissuade the Syrian regime, and by extension, any other regime (think Iran) from producing or using these or other forbidden weapons, then this agreement will serve to reach that goal without a costly military intervention.
But let’s not kid ourselves. The fact that Assad has finally admitted to possessing chemical weapons and agreed to eliminate them is not due to Putin’s political sagacity and nor to John Kerry’s diplomatic clumsiness, but rather to Obama’s credible threat to use force. Given the criminal nature of Assad’s regime, this pressure remains necessary, and so is this fact reflected in the agreement, which states that a failure to comply with the deadlines will open the way to Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, which allows the Security Council to use force against one of its members.
Of course, Russia could use its veto rights to block any hypothetical military intervention, but after accepting commitments with tight deadlines and clear conditions, it is hard to envision how the Syrian regime would shake off the incredible pressure it has been under after using chemical weapons.
Despite celebrating the agreement, it is necessary to underscore two major shortcomings. First, the deal fails to establish the authorship of the chemical attack of August 21, an aggression that was confirmed beyond a doubt by UN inspectors. Sacrificing justice for the sake of diplomacy is a painful price to pay; let us hope that it is just temporary, and that in future the perpetrators of that attack will be brought before the International Criminal Court.
Secondly, the agreement says nothing about how to end a civil war that has already killed over 100,000 people and created five million refugees, and which could still spill beyond Syria’s borders. True, that was not the goal of the agreement, but the mere possibility that Assad might turn in his chemical weapons and proceed with the massacre of civilians should make the international community work hard at credible, lasting peace negotiations. The turning over of chemical weapons and the end of the civil war cannot be treated as separate issues. Peace is indivisible.